Thursday, April 4, 2013

All Men of Genius

Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Solid and leisurely (464 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: September 27, 2011 from Tor Books
Premise: Violet Adams has dreamed for years of attending Illyria College to refine her skills and inventions, but the school only accepts men, so naturally the solution is to disguise herself as her twin brother Ashton in order to gain admission. Keeping her secret at school is difficult, and that's before taking into account the automata in the school cellar, her feelings for a fellow scientist, a young woman's feelings for her male disguise, an intricate blackmail plot, or the sinister plans of one of the other students.
Warnings: implied threat of rape to a secondary character
Recommendation: If steampunk mysteries are your thing, absolutely give this one a try; it blends science, humor, gender issues, and literary references to create a lightly fun read.

I'm going to be a hair spoiler-brushing about the romantic relationships because they are well-nigh impossible to discuss without names, but there's enough love at first sight that it's easy to call who's going to pine after whom. 

What makes this one sail along lightly:
Lev Ac Rosen is indebted to his source material but manages to thread it in without feeling obliged to force his story into every twist and turn of the originals-- some explanations may be in order. The cross-gender disguise is inspired by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, with Violet's disguise as her brother Ashton mirroring Viola's disguise as the messenger Cesario. Many of the other secondary characters are also pulled from the play, with Toby and Miriam following in the footsteps of Toby and Maria as they scheme and write letters together. The two are delighted to fool Volio (based on the play's Malvolio) into thinking that he is winning the love of Cecily, who echoes the role of Olivia but is more truly the character of the same name in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Cecily has feelings for Violet-as-Ashton (Ashton himself spends the book helping with letters and drinking) because the young scientist talks to her as an equal, but she is pursued by Jack. Violet herself has feelings for Ernest, the headmaster of Illyria, who has Cecily as a ward and employs Miriam as a governess for the girl. Gwendolyn, sadly, is not present in the book but get a delightful throwaway joke in the middle. Clear on all that? No? Good, because it takes a while to disentangle all the relationships here, but it's almost shocking how well the two plays blend into one delightful set of wheels within wheels.

Violet and  Ashton themselves are by far the best part of this story. The two are absolutely comfortable with each other, seeking advice and pranking each other with impunity. Ashton fills an interesting role in the story, being the parallel to Twelfth Night's Sebastian....but rather than stepping forward and marrying Cecily as that plot would demand, he's an "invert" (common terminology of the time) in a quiet gay relationship. He is, in many ways, the stand-in for Wilde himself; while he doesn't share the writer's bold flamboyancy, he's comfortable as a dandy and provides to the book's best witticisms. Rosen does a delicate job of balancing Ashton's lifestyle with his discretion, making it clear that Ashton is resigned to hiding that part of himself in order to stay out of jail. It's not given a lingering focus, but Rosen doesn't sugar-coat Violet's sadness that while she can step out of men's clothing to be a woman after a year of school, he can never step out hiding the way she can. That discrepancy does nothing to drive them apart, however; Violet pesters Ashton, so he hides her letter from Illyria, so she breaks into his room-- it all just clicks in a way that sibling relationships normally don't.

The initial masquerade requires a fair amount of plotting, but it's at the blackmail plot that scheming becomes truly necessary. Miriam, Cecily's governess, is caught coming into the school with students-- if Ernest knew, he might fire her, so Volio orders her to convey his love notes to Cecily, who is normally kept at a distance from the students to avoid distracting them. Miriam doesn't want to, so Ashton (while posing as Violet-as-Ashton's cousin who is also named Ashton) uses his creative flair to impersonate Cecily's writing style. Miriam and Toby are grateful, since they want to continue their relationship freely, so the blackmail and deception proceeds in intricate coils for months without Cecily knowing a thing. It's hard to keep all that spinning, but Rosen manages it with ease. Volio's plotting doesn't occupy too much space, so his appearances are all the more sinister; when he passes notes to Miriam, he casually implies that it would be easy to rape her, and he delights in holding secrets over people's heads to trap them in his power, much like a small child torturing insects. There's genuine menace to his character, albeit wrapped in arrogance, and that helps anchor the story as something more serious than a pure cross-dressing comedy. He's a bit less interesting once he gets segments from his own point of view, sadly, but his plots are intriguing.

The rest of the minor characters are great, and it's impossible to do all of them justice here. Almost every one of them has a story, a reason for being at the school, and a detailed set of odd quirks, goals....many school-style novels fall into the trap of making people archetypes like the prankster, the smart one, the flirt, the thug, the beauty, the evil one, and so on, but All Men of Genius (mostly, there's sort of a Malfoy person) steers away from that. Miriam in particular winds up with some gorgeous backstory that almost makes you want to see a whole book from her perspective, and Mrs. Fisk the housekeeper provides note-perfect flustered comedy. Selfish people may find themselves in love, or loving couples may choose not to be married; these people lead surprisingly nuanced lives that reflect both their personality and the time period. Many characters have their roots in the two plays, but often those who have only minor parts in the source material (or are original to the novel) follow the most captivating paths.

The red pen:

Lovely though it is to watch Violet struggle to balance her desire to be a respected scientist and her desire to openly be a woman, there are a few sour notes amid the swirl of gender role dancing. Perhaps the most grating comes when Violet has the chance to dress honestly as a woman over the holidays and reflects that she enjoys wearing comfortable skirts, not binding her breasts....and being a source of joy to people around her. In all seriousness, she says "I find I like it when people are made happier by my presence" after explaining that it's easy to put on a little powder, do her hair, and even that corsets aren't too bad if they are laced loosely. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the few jarring moments that illustrates that the author is...inexperienced with the female side of life. There is a reason that women no longer wear corsets and long dresses on a daily basis, and that is because they are uncomfortable and inconvenient. Between my own experiences and an informal poll of ladyfriends, the takeaway is this: corsets can be fun for the length of a day or two and make great costume pieces, but they are uncomfortable by design. A corset is made of stiff fabric and ideally reinforced with steel, so you cannot bend or stoop properly; breathing is constricted, your motions stop short, sitting comfortably is difficult, and they can even restrict the length of your step. This is especially true in combination with skirts, which were quite long and unwieldy in Violet's era.

These inconveniences would be tolerable, but the idea of making people happier by her presence is precisely what irks her when she meets Ernest as a woman: he thinks she's lovely and guides her around the gardens but wants to discuss the beauty of the flowers rather than the science of their structure. She's angry, insulted, and all the more determined to pass as a man to have serious conversations instead of be a mere ornament. The little speech feels like a clumsy attempt to ensure that Violet will end up with a conventional gender presentation by the end instead of like a natural development of her character. She's still struggling to balance her technology presentation at the year-end faire with the desire to come clean and confess her feelings to Ernest, but is held back by the idea that he might expel her for being female: with that concern tainting both her work and her potential love, it's hard to make this breezy "oh, it's so easy to put on powder" speech mesh with her plight. It weakens the introspection about gender roles, which had formerly been good; when Violet gets compliments as a woman earlier in the book, she's torn between being flattered by compliments from her neighbors and wanting to shout that she's a genius despite her appearance. She doesn't reach any real conclusion at that point, and the conflict seems real until it settles so easily later.

Jack and Cecily both have their delightful moments as characters, especially when Jack tries to create a singing rabbit to prove his love to her (don't ask), but their relationship as a whole is somewhat anemic. To some extent, this is a weakness of stories that revolve around two couples trying to find love despite comedic obstacles-- someone has to draw the short straw of humor. In Much Ado About Nothing, for example, does anyone really care most about Hero and Claudio when Beatrice and Benedick are busy tearing verbal strips off each other and being tricked into falling in love? (Hint, if you haven't seen the play: no.) On the other hand, it's a little dull to see Jack trying and failing to win Cecily's affection by making obvious mistakes like telling her she's pretty before taking her seriously as a scholar, or deciding to woo her through friendship so that he'll be there when she realizes that Ashton is in fact Violet and thus perhaps not the best romantic prospect. In the best scenes, it's a little cute and funny to see them talk; in the worst, Jack verges on being a stalker. That makes it hard to care about their romantic future, especially since we're told several times that they've talked for hours about science but aren't really shown any of those talks.

Violet and Ernest have a better rapport, especially in one delightful scene in which they're screaming at each other about scientific ideas, but Ernest himself seems a little too befuddled. As a generic love interest struggling to move out of his father's shadow, he's all right, but considering that he's rooted in an Oscar Wilde's a little harder to shrug off his indecisiveness and pining. Ernest might have been better with a dash more of Ashton in him, perhaps a little humor or a hint of the scandalous lifestyle that both men share in the Wilde play; he's living all in the society-approved mask that both Jack and Algernon avoid whenever they're having fun. He has the seeds of an intriguing struggle, namely that he can't live up to his father's seemingly effortless genius and feels like a fraud for running the school in his place. It's a good focal point, since it leaves him afraid to fully explore the school or change anything, but it also wraps up very quickly-- the gateway to his father's legacy has been in front of him the whole time, but he explores and seems to fully resolve his feelings on the matter in a pat chapter or two, so it's hard to care about his conflict. Spacing the revelations out just a little more would have done wonders for his arc.

On the whole, All Men of Genius is great fun, but it could stand to pull a little more from the Wilde source material on the humor and comedy fronts. The work also might benefit from a little more zest and banter in the romantic arcs, but the charming steampunk setting and vivid touches to so many secondary characters more than make up for that flatness. I'll absolutely try whatever project Rosen puts out next.

Prospects: This is Lev Ac Rosen's only book so far, and it wraps itself up neatly enough to not be aiming for a sequel; on the other hand, I'd be surprised to see nothing follow such a promising debut. Keep an eye out for more!

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Watch both plays on stage if you can find them locally and on video if you can't. Twelfth Night can be delightful if you use the trick of listening to tone and delivery instead of fixating on individual bits of slang, but The Importance of Being Earnest very nearly reduced me to tears of laughter. If you're looking for an interlocking literary project, I recommend watching both plays and then reading the book to watch how neatly everything cascades into place-- honestly, a streamlined version of this might be a great play in its own right.
~Soulless by Gail Carriger. The books share an underlying thread of women trying to be taken seriously based on their own merits and interest in science, though where Violet works purely in technology, Alexia walks in a more magic-influenced universe.  
~If it's mainly the woman passing as man to gain respect in her field that catches your eye and you're willing to shoot for a slightly younger protagonist, try Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness quartet. Yes, it can be a bit cheesy in places, but it does an excellent job portraying Alanna both as the focal point of some heavy destiny and as a short girl desperate to win her shield. 

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